This week, jurors in San Diego will decide if San Diego State University committed unlawful retaliation when it fired women’s basketball coach Beth Burns in 2013. At the time, Burns was a veteran head coach with a long success record and who had just posted a record number of season wins. She was also just nine months in to a 5 year renewed contract, and was making well over 200,000 a year. Her past performance evaluations praised her for running a solid program and doing an “excellent job.”
So why was she fired? That is what the jury will have to decide after today’s closing arguments summarize a month-long trial’s worth of testimony. At the time Burns was fired, university officials cited as “sole cause” for her termination an incident in which she slapped her assistant coach’s knees with a clipboard as they watched a game from the sidelines. At trial, however, witnesses for the university testified that Burns had a long history of treating her colleagues and employees with anger and disrespect.
Burns, on the other hand, testified that she was fired because she blew the whistle on unequal treatment for the women’s athletics, including her team. Reportedly, a key piece of evidence in her case is an email between the (then) athletic director and a former university vice present that describes Burns as “driving us crazy w complaining.”
Other questions raised a trial include: Why did the former athletic director destroy the notes of a key meeting about Burns with a university vice president? What did the president mean when he brought up Bobby Knight (former Indiana coach famous for his temper) in his testimony? Was Burns sabotaged by a member of her own staff who was working in cohorts with an associated athletic director to create a biased record of the coach’s behavior? And of course, the question of whether the the university can credibly claim that Burns was fired for “misconduct” begs the question, was her conduct in fact a departure from athletics-cultural norms? (As one witness testified, “What most people call yelling, we (in athletics) call communication.”)
The jury is expected to receive the case on Tuesday, and will take however long it needs to render its verdict, to which nine of twelve jurors must agree.
Note: This is not the first retaliation case we’ve blogged about against San Diego State. In 2007, the university was sued by a former women’s swim coach. She alleged that she was fired for complaining about gender inequality and sexual harassment. The university claimed that she was fired for poor performance, though, remarkably, the athletic department had closed the pool for seven years, making it difficult to produce a winning record! Eventually the university settled for $1.45 million dollars.